Topic: Government and Politics

Bring Back the Baggage, Please

This is well past its purchase-by date, but Dafna Linzer had a Washington Post Outlook piece in March on the National Security Council’s “Sesame Street Generation.” Not as sneering as the title implies, the article describes the first generation of NSC officials to come of age in an era of American unipolarity. If the article is any indication, my exceedingly low expectations for my generation may have been a touch too optimistic.

In one particularly breathtaking passage, Meghan O’Sullivan, the president’s point person for Iraq on the NSC, describes her intellectual heritage and how that shapes her approach to policy:

For many of the generals with whom O’Sullivan consults in her current job, the painful experience of Vietnam permeates their thinking on Iraq. Not for O’Sullivan. “We are the first post-Vietnam generation, without the baggage of Vietnam, which doesn’t mean we don’t try to learn some of the lessons from there about counterinsurgency and so forth, but it’s not my first frame of reference and I think that’s a good thing,” said O’Sullivan.

Actually, having a pessimistic view of counterinsurgency would probably be a good thing. The new Army field manual on counterinsurgency is only the latest indication that the sunny optimism of the Bush administration was a mistake, and that counterinsurgency is much, much harder than administration officials thought it was before we went in to Iraq.

After the first Persian Gulf war, President George H.W. Bush famously exclaimed “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” It appears his son, and the Sesame Street Generation at the NSC—the Best and the Brightest, if you will, of Generation X—are doing their level best to bring it back.

Hey Doc, Does It Hurt When I Do This?

According to PoliticalMoneyLine.com:

Federal lobbying of the legislative and executive branches totaled $1.2 billion ($1,201,255,222) during the last six months of 2005. This is the first period lobbying expenditures have averaged over $200 million a month. For all of 2005 the total spent was $2,363,102,190.

Lobbying by health care interests led the pack ($183,324,757 spent in the last half of 2005), just as it has for the last 10 or so years.  That might have something to do with the fact that government purchases about half of all health care in the United States and controls the other half indirectly.

The American Medical Association was among the top five organizational spenders ($9,720,000 spent in the last half of 2005) in part because they successfully lobbied to block Medicare payment cuts, which had already been enacted into law and were scheduled to take effect this year.  That would be the third or fourth year in a row that providers have staved off those payment cuts.

Jagadeesh Gokhale and I have a theory.  It is that politicians have no intention of reducing how much Medicare pays providers, but instead use the threat of payment cuts to extract political contributions from doctors and hospitals.

The Incredible Shrinking Deficit

The federal budget deficit projection for 2006 shrank to $296 billion (story here).  White House insiders are reporting that this is a good thing.

Compared to what?  Well, compared to last year’s deficit, of course.  Or compared to where the deficit was expected to go.  But being proud of an accomplishment like that is a bit like congratulating yourself for successfully not driving your car into a brick wall. 

Before anyone accuses me of being Eeyore incarnate, I’d like to note that the economy has been growing faster than many people expected, and surprises like that are always welcome.  That’s the main reason the federal government has collected so much revenue – and it’s unlikely that the Bush tax cuts didn’t have something to do with that.

Yet it’s hard to find much solace in data that also show the federal budget has grown by a staggering 45 percent during the Bush presidency so far.  (The national economy as measured by GDP has only grown by 30 percent.)  And you just might realize the good news is also the bad news.  On the one hand, the government collected more tax money.  On the other hand, the government collected more tax money. 

Government spending is still chewing on close to 21 percent of GDP.  That’s still bigger than the 18 percent it consumed when Bush took office.  In fact, that’s the biggest the budget has been in over 10 years – which is, conveniently, a point in history right before the Republican Revolution. 

If the federal budget had grown from the day George W. Bush was inaugurated at the same annual rate it had for the six years before he came to office, the federal budget would swallow only 17 percent of GDP today.  Balanced or not, seems to me a budget of that size would be much better than what we’ve got now.  Maybe we should stop the bidding there next year. 

In the meantime, the unfunded liabilities of federal entitlements have rocketed to over $85 trillion.  That’s obviously a much bigger number than the current year deficit.  And obviously a much bigger problem.  Yet you don’t seem to hear too much about that from policymakers anymore.

Okay, enough of the gloom.  You may now return to your regularly-scheduled happiness.

An Army of Bureaucrats?

A few Members of Congress will reportedly draft legislation to create the United States Public Service Academy, which would be modeled after the four existing military academies.

Proponents of this idea note on their website that, “the federal government offers only one set of undergraduate institutions for high school seniors with the patriotic desire to serve their country: the military service academies.”

That may be true, but there are plenty of educational options for those who wish to pursue such a career.  Why should taxpayers be responsible for an additional $205 million a year for a new public service academy when hundreds and hundreds of colleges and universities already offer public service programs?

Orrin Hatch Backs Drug Legalization

Who would’ve thunk it? Turns out that former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) doesn’t believe in jail terms for drug users. At least I guess that’s what this story means:

U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a musician in his own right, helped secure the release of Atlanta R&B producer Dallas Austin from a Dubai jail after a drug conviction, the senator’s office confirmed Saturday.

In a statement released through his staff, the conservative Republican said he was contacted by Austin’s attorneys, then called the ambassador and consul of the United Arab Emirates in Washington on Austin’s behalf.

A Grammy winner who has produced hits for Madonna, Pink and TLC, Austin was arrested May 19 and convicted of drug possession for bringing 1.26 grams of cocaine into Dubai.

Surely Hatch thinks regular old Americans are due the same consideration as a Grammy-winning singer. He’d advocate the release of any American convicted of possessing 1.26 grams of cocaine, right?

Or are politicians hypocrites? Could it be that they think average Americans like Richard Paey should go to jail for using large amounts of painkillers, but not celebrities like Rush Limbaugh? Could it be that they laugh about their own past drug use while supporting a policy that arrests 1.5 million Americans a year, as a classic John Stossel “Give Me a Break” segment showed? (Not online, unfortunately, but you can read a commentary here.)

Putting people in jail for using drugs is bad enough. Putting the little people in jail while politicians chortle over their own drug use and pull strings to get celebrities out of jail is hypocrisy on a grand scale.

Porkers Get Prime Seats

This morning I attended President Bush’s speech on the release of the midsession budget review at the White House.  Bush first tied his tax cuts to the strong economic growth the nation is experiencing, and he was on solid ground. He then delivered some fine rhetoric about restraining spending and cutting special interest pork.  Perhaps his new budget and Treasury chiefs–Rob Portman and Henry Paulson–can actually get him to follow through on those frequently made promises.  But I would be more convinced if the White House hadn’t invited two of the Senate’s biggest pork barrelers–Ted Stevens and Conrad Burns–to sit right in the front row for the speech!  

Policy Dreams vs. Government Realities

When I came to Washington in 1990, central planning (“industrial policy”) was all the rage. As the 1990s progressed, the clamor for industrial policy faded, partly because the Japanese and German economies stagnated while the US economy soared.

But in my inbox this morning came news of a new study from the Progressive Policy Institute claiming that “America needs a national comprehensive strategy in order to maintain its preeminence within the world economy.”

Which government would implement this “national comprehensive stategy” I wonder? Surely not the same one that delivers non-stop pork barrel spending, management failure, and corruption year after year, decade after decade.